Impossible to imagine: Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten start a pre-election national TV debate with handshakes and a hug. Two and a half hours later after gently tapping a few verbal shuttlecocks to-and-fro they pledge to remain friends forever.
That was the scene in Jakarta last weekend when President Joko Widodo and challenger Prabowo Subianto faced off 18 days ahead of the election.
A Kompas national daily headline called the show ‘dynamic’; the writer must have been dozing between commercial breaks.
It was managed by the General Electoral Commission (KPU) which will be supervising booths for the 194 million registered voters on 17 April.
The ‘debate’ was supposed to help the country get a clear idea of the candidates’ policies. Instead they competed to be the most passionate flag-embracers. Though the 18th century English writer Samuel Johnson’s dictum that ‘patriotismis thelast refugeof thescoundrel’ is little known in Indonesia, voters understand jingoism masks a dearth of policies and an absence of solutions.
Subianto alleged that Widodo’s office was spreading false rumours that the disgraced former soldier would introduce sharia law if elected. This is the Islamic legal system which includes public floggings for homosexuality and unmarried couples being together. It already applies in the North Sumatra province of Aceh.
Wagging a finger and in a parade-ground bellow Subianto pledged support for Pancasila, the nation’s foundation policy.
Pancasila (five principles) was devised by first President Soekarno to keep the nation nominally secular and thwart attempts by hard-liners to make the nation Islamic.
All Indonesians are supposed to believe in ‘the one and only God’, a just and civilized humanity, a unified nation, democratic and led by the ‘wisdom of the representatives of the people’, and social justice for all.
Like most motherhood statements it’s full of holes. Hinduism – mainly practised in Bali – is polytheistic, while democracy has been absent till recently. If ‘social justice’ means the poor and minorities can exercise equal rights, then it’s a misnomer.
According to an Oxfam report Indonesia is now: ‘the sixth country of greatest wealth inequality in the world … the four richest men in Indonesia have more wealth than the combined total of the poorest 100 million people.’
There’s no formal equivalent of Pancasila in Australia where we usually shrink from displays of loyalty to the state; the best example would be the Pledge of Allegiance in the US.
Pancasila is taught in high schools but Prabowo wants it extended to primary schools and universities up to doctoral level. No dissent from Widodo. Opposing would have been like banning dawn services on 25 April.
Under second President Soeharto, who was deposed in 1998 following years of corruption, Pancasila took a rest. It was rapidly revived by Widodo to offset the growth of militant Islam, particularly after Jakarta Governor Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama was jailed for two years for blasphemy.
This followed huge protests organized in late 2016 by Islamists against the ‘double-minority’ politician – he’s Protestant and ethnic Chinese.
Blame for the blandness of the TV debate lies partly with the nervous KPU which set rigid rules, disallowing personal attacks. Prabowo skirted this prohibition by blaming Widodo’s staff for bad briefings of their boss.
Questions and answers were confined to short timed grabs which were more personality show-offs than policy statements with rupiah price tags.
More revealing was the body language. Prabowo has bounced back from his 1998 military discharge for ‘misinterpreting orders’ regarding the alleged kidnapping and torture of activists, to claim he’s now more army than the army. He’s become a plump, brasher Southeast Asian version of Trump. He swaggered and hectored.
Widodo, who could get a job as a menswear model if he loses, has been fronting huge rallies around the nation. He looked exhausted and on two occasions sat down without filling his allotted time.
Short of the President being caught in flagrante delicto with a gay Chinese Communist, and despite looking like he’d rather be home than on the hustings, he’s still predicted to win a second five-year term by a substantial margin.
This is because prices in markets and bowsers have largely stayed stable, while new toll-roads, ports, trains (including Jakarta’s first Mass Rapid Transport system) are obvious signs of Widodo’s can-do commitment to infrastructure.
He’s a poor public speaker, no match for his blowhard rival, but still maintains his man-of-the-people image. Prabowo, who was educated in the US, threw in a few English phrases which made no contextual sense.
He wants more spent on defence though there are no threats on any horizon; big boys need big toys. Later, said Widodo, let’s first find jobs for the kids and promote free trade, like the deal with Australia.
Voters who want a return to father-knows-best government rather than the messy business of democracy, will have been impressed by Prabowo. But they’re on his side already.
The danger facing mild-mannered Widodo is not that his yawning supporters will switch sides, but will stay in bed on polling day, a national holiday. Booths close at 1 pm. This is such a worry there’s a major campaign against golput (no shows).
Based on the President’s TV performance the only reason for bothering to vote is to make sure the world’s third largest democracy (after India and the US) doesn’t revert to being the world’s second largest autocracy behind China.
Australian journalist Duncan Graham lives in Indonesia and writes for the English language press.